Anyone interested in contemporary opera or music theatre is spoilt for choice in London at the moment. ENO’s Elegy for Young Lovers and the Royal Opera’s Powder Her Face both exhilarate and bite10 at the Barbican now adds Heiner Goebbels’ latest theatre piece to the mix.
I Went To The House But Did Not Enter can hardly be described as an opera, in fact the music plays distinctly second fiddle to theatre and poetry, but that’s typical of the German composer’s boundary-blurring approach. We know that he’s capable of large-scale orchestral work so the decision to step back and allow the texts to speak for themselves is clearly a deliberate one.
Those in question are T S Eliot’s The Love Song of J Alfred Prufock, Maurice Blanchot’s The Madness of the Day and Samuel Beckett’s fragmentary late prose text Worstword Ho, with a snatch of Kafka thrown in. The first and last are intoned to the simplest setting by Goebbels, while the lesser-known Blanchot is largely spoken.
After the theatrical tepidity of the composer’s Songs of War I Have Seen, performed on the South Bank twice in recent years, Goebbels gives us a full-blown staging, not the first by any means (his work was last seen at the Barbican in 2002). His direction is immaculate and the quartet of singers known as the Hilliard Ensemble (tenors Rogers Covey-Crump and Steven Harrold, counter-tenor David James and baritone Gordon Jones) surpass themselves in delivering the texts against a series of bewilderingly oblique scenarios.
The performers are pushed to the limits of their acting abilities with the spoken Blanchot and one wouldn’t want them to have to carry any more of the dramatic burden than they do. All is performed against strikingly beautiful sets by Klaus Grünberg (talking of striking sets, the extensive scene changes are carried out with a flourish in front of the audience).
Goebbels’ theme seems to be togetherness and separateness, although don’t look for too much logical meaning and that over-used theatrical element narrative is all but banished. The Eliot, one of the most beautiful poems of the 20th Century surely, is played against a palindromic scenario of four men in suits dismantling then re-assembling a room in a house, all in shades of grey.
For the Blanchot/Kafka, we are outside a house, this time a seemingly recognisable slice of urban reality, while Worstward Ho takes place in a hotel room, with participants in neither a communal situation or individual realities. One of Beckett’s more difficult texts, it contains the famous “Fail Again. Fail Better” and, like much of his late fiction, the captivating image of a father and boy “hand in hand with equal plod they go” (extra ambiguity and poignancy is added to the “no farther” of the final paragraphs when it is heard rather than read).
The sung element is a cappella (with brief accompaniment of offstage piano at one point) and the singers are miked, a rare example of this being entirely appropriate. It’s all carried out, performances and direction, with a delicate beauty and the cumulative effect is a demanding but haunting and thought-provoking evening.